Newly arrived from the suburbs, Wasserman Projects art gallery is what I hope the future art spaces of Detroit will look like-clean, well lit, and elegant (and open more than once a week for 3 hours!) The museum-quality treatment that Esther Shevel-Gerz’s Space Between Time receives from the gallery convinced me that I needed to look more carefully at her work than I would otherwise be inclined to, since I’m not a great fan of conceptual art generally.
Esther Shevel-Gerz employs a visual idiom that I would call high academic. She combines video, art photography and text to convey her recurring themes: the fugitive nature of memory, the inexorable passage of time and inevitable loss. Although they are a little forbidding at first approach, her art works are actually fairly straightforward (with one exception which I will get to later). They are a kind of institutional art, each one having been installed originally for a specific museum, school or cultural institution. Shelev-Gertz’s works are related very closely to the sites for which they are conceived and often incorporate the people who work at or attend that institution. You, as the viewer, are called upon to imagine them installed in that setting in order to appreciate them fully.
The most accessible and appealing work, to my mind, was created for the Municipal Library of Vancouver and is entitled The Open Page. It is a suite of high resolution, large-format photos of antique rare books selected by the librarians from the locked stacks of their library. Each one is tenderly held in the disembodied hands of its keeper. The reverent love of the librarians for these beautiful objects is palpable.
The most conceptually challenging work, Inseparable Angels, is a quasi-installation. A video with audio, two black and white photographs, two color photos, a clock that runs both forward and back, and accompanying text are displayed along a back wall of the gallery. All of this was originally installed in the upper story of a house at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. In Inseparable Angels Shevel-Gerz imagines a home for Walter Benjamin, a prominent philosopher who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. The video records a 15 minute trip from Weimar to Auschwitz. The taxi driver recounts various “sights” along the way, all of which appear only in his memory, as they no longer exist in fact. The 2 adjacent color photos represent sites where now-absent places once stood.
The accompanying text refers to his journal, Angelus Novus. This was also the title of a Paul Klee painting of the same name (which Benjamin owned). In spite of its sweet appearance, this angel was far from benign. For Benjamin this was the angel of history:
“His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
The work that may resonate most with a Detroit audience though, is Describing Labor, created for the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach, Florida. A split screen video shows interviews with the museum personnel, each of whom has chosen an artwork that shows people engaging in manual labor. The interviews create a peculiar kind of double vision; mind workers talking about manual workers as if they are anthropologists talking about a concept of labor that exists now only as a kind of historical artifact. In a nearby vitrine, the point is driven home even more clearly. Hammers have been cast into clear glass, useful tools no longer having a use.
In the end, to my surprise, I found I liked Esther Shevel-Gerz quite a lot. Her cool, conceptual approach allowed me to thoughtfully contemplate themes that are always in the back of the mind but rarely get our full attention. Her work is also a reminder of the importance of institutions such as museums and libraries. They are repositories of our collective memory that allow us to recall what we might otherwise forget. And she introduced me to Walter Benjamin, who I am coming to know better as I read his essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility (more of a page turner than you might think from the title.) So…thank you Wasserman Projects!
Space Between Time is on view until July 9. The gallery, located at 3434 Russell Street, is open Wednesday-Saturday. Parking is available on site. For more information go to http://wassermanprojects.com/